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What Milo Tells Us About Free Speech And Decency

Recently the right-wing icon Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for supposedly spewing hate. I didn’t actually look at the exchange in question, but I’ve heard Mr. Yiannopoulos speak, and I’ve perused his “literature” before, so I didn’t find it all that necessary to delve into that attention-span-killing medium to find the exact battle in question. I can only imagine he didn’t take some new tack: hear a talking head regurgitate their ideological commitments once, you might as well have heard it a thousand times.

Perhaps we need more writers doing caricatures, rather than returning fire with similar sounding rhetoric or satirizing the situation upon which they choose to comment. We may be at the point at which, to quote the eloquent David Foster Wallace, caricature is “an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy,” and not a useful springboard for any type of action. The caricatures that could be done today, however, are much different from their more archaic versions: Max Beerbohm caricatured G.K. Chesterton, but only managed to do so in style and not in content. Today, I am confident a stylistic and intellectual caricature of Yiannopoulos could be easily accomplished. If nothing else, this just shows how boring of a talking head he has so quickly become.

In any case, in the wake of this pop-culture tragedy folks have, predictably, either rushed to Yiannopoulos’s defense or joined in the parade of, as the defense puts it, “fascism.” It is funny how quickly a Twitter feud can turn into a supposedly obvious situation in which the only answer coming from both sides is to raise the alarms of ‘civilization is at stake.’ If nothing else, we as a society have a penchant ability to see in the most trivial of happenings an instance of moral panic and existential crisis. In this case, obviously, is cast free speech versus fascism: I could imagine this being compared to—if it hasn’t been already in not so exact of language—the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in some not too far off history textbook.

The two sides in this incredibly simple fight are thus captured simply. The supposedly anti-Yiannopoulos, neo-Fascist rhetoric:

“Milo shows no remorse for the avalanche of misconduct he helped direct towards Leslie Jones, who is just the latest victim of the recreational ritual abuse he likes to launch at women and minorities for the fame and fun of it. According to the law of the wild web, the spoils go to those with fewest fucks to give. I have come to believe, in the course of our bizarro unfriendship, that Milo believes in almost nothing concrete—not even in free speech. The same is reportedly true of Trump, of people like Ann Coulter, of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage: They are pure antagonists unencumbered by any conviction apart from their personal entitlement to raw power and stacks of cash.”

Notice, however, the significant lack of a free-speech threat: no one is saying the government needs to shut Yiannopoulos down. As far as I can tell this would be the only threat to free speech, much to the dismay of people wanting to force free speech into some societal law. And nor, as far as I can tell, are people saying Yiannopoulos ought be punished for his words: it seems as if—saving for a moment those radicals who would happily jail Yiannopoulos in a heartbeat—most just want a bit more honesty, sincerity, and intelligence at the table. No doubt meals that both sides should consume a bit more regularly.

The other side is summed up quite nicely too:

“The open society our grandparents fought for needs assholes like Milo Yiannopoulos—even though they’re often full of shit, even though their motives are frequently somewhat less than noble. The truth or falsity of what difficult people say is to some extent irrelevant, as is their mental health. Fixating on either of these questions invariably leads to a convenient rationalization for silencing them.”

As you can see, both sides see in this situation cause for raising the alarm, albeit for entirely different reasons. As an interesting aside, I’ve talked to a good amount of people on both sides of the political spectrum and the common consensus on Yiannopoulos is that, indeed, he is an asshole. The above statement in Yiannopoulos’ “defense” sort of tips its hat in this direction as well without necessary engaging in the content of what he is saying—for to do so would be to get people get caught in that sticky web of ‘no, I don’t agree with what he’s saying necessarily, I just believe he can say it.’ I’m glad we’ve set the bar low. Like most situations though, I see the pendulum swinging from side to side, stopping at the middle point of moderation for but a brief moment in which the more “serious” of the political bunch convince us that this is no time for moderation; or tell us to quit being naïve, for, again, civilization itself is at stake. We may well lose civilization, but it will be by persuading ourselves and others it is indeed slipping out of our hands, and thus convincing ourselves once and for all more desperate measures need to be taken against our enemies.

I just recently finished Robert M. Calhoon’s book Political Moderation in America’s First Two Centuries. It was about as eye-opening as it was surprisingly un-academic and digestible. So perhaps my wanting a bit more moderation in this situation is both predictable and an unconscious ode to this book and those nasty devils in history who, wanting to preserve the fabric of society, found it “more important for a society to move together than for it to move either fast or far.” Almost everyone on every side confronted these moderates with absolute disgust, yet, upon closer examination, the moderates at every turn seemed to bridge one more gap, apply one more bandage to the immediate problems they were confronted with day in and day out. These unsung heroes are far more inspiring than any of the work put in by that oft-flaunted ensemble of founding fathers—not to discredit the latter in any sense, but rather to realize that it’s not all that hard to write a Declaration of whatever when you don’t have to deal with the fallout of said Declaration in the towns and cities that were literally and physically being torn apart by rival factions.

Unsurprising, then, that I believe that a reasonable middle ground is available here—of course only in theory. To be sure, it is easier for the moderate to attack the pro-free speech camp. It is ironic, in a sense, that those defending Yiannopoulos are defending him with such high-minded academic jargon about democracy and the necessity of dissent when Yiannopoulos doesn’t, and has never, showed a shred of decency or care for that type of style or political engagement. This is all done under the pseudo-sage’s guise of “I do not approve of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.” Those who like to flaunt such dramatic platitudes often are lacking in any sense of what these early moderates understood to be our societal fabric. It is, in essence, the belief that decency plays a part in how people interact in society, and the even simpler fact that how you say something almost always matters more than what you are saying. Again, this is why many people who agree with Yiannopoulos’ views are just as soon disassociating themselves from him: they understand that some semblance of decency is necessary. In short, most people believe words matter. Not in any trigger-warning sense, but in the sense that people should have a greater sense of responsibility to the words they speak. That people can say whatever they want, watch one of the slower of the bunch take those words a bit too literally and act violently toward whomever, see that same speaker then wash their hands of the situation under the self-congratulatory stance of “I can say what I want” is problematic to say the absolute least. Oakeshott was right when he said “we are too ready believe that so long as our freedom to speak is not impaired we have lost nothing of importance—which is not so.” Indeed, if our current landscape tells us anything it’s that this is not so at all.

Perhaps, then, it should be “I don’t approve of what you are saying, but you are conveying your message in a decent and genuine manner, so I will defend to death your right to say it”—maybe a job as a Yiannopoulos decency translator is in my future. I have no problem adding a decency disclaimer to all speech given our situation. That is, given most people today use their oh-so-coveted free expression to rattle off the first thing that pops into their heads as if they have confused spontaneous thoughts with divinely inspired truths.

Maybe, upon seeing how my thoughts are playing out, I do lean a little more toward the anti-Yiannopoulos side. Call me a traditionalist, but I don’t see why civility or common decency needed to go when we became a more expressive and open society. It’s almost as if civility was interpreted as a male-dominated, whitewashed remnant of a bygone, more repressive past, therefore, it needed to go as well. How bourgeois. God forbid we leave the baby in the tub at least one time, or, put another way, see that decency is compatible with just about any set a beliefs one holds—it’s a manner of expression; it hardly determines our beliefs. Unlike the Yiannopoulos defenders, I don’t think that we need people like Yiannopoulos to prove to us that we still have dissent or an open-society, just as I don’t need to set fire to my house every time I wish to clean it. It is nothing short of immaturity to believe that flamboyantly crude figures like Yiannopoulos are necessary to keep the machine running, or, as they would have it, running away from Fascism.

If anything at all is to be gleaned from my criticism of Yiannopoulos, it is simply the fact that I don’t think we should hold him up as a gem of dissent in the maelstrom that is our democratic discourse—we should aspire much higher.

Dissent isn’t in danger; decency is. There’s plenty of dissent, but you can’t hear it because Milo Yiannopoulos is yelling so loudly.


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133 thoughts on “What Milo Tells Us About Free Speech And Decency

  1. I agree; I don’t think that Yiannapolous’s antics (or what I gather them to be, in any case) are helpful. In fact, I think they’re counterproductive. The illiberal left is a real problem, and we need people to call them out on their garbage, but not him, and not this way. He gives them cover, so they can point to him and say, “Look! This is the kind of person who opposes our agenda. You don’t want to be on his side, do you?” It shouldn’t work, but it does, because for most people politics is mostly about self-image.

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  2. Yeah well, screw decency. There’s a lot nice decent folks out there, and I respond to that with the same. For the rest, who aren’t, they get back what they give. Curiously, it seems Leslie Jones isn’t above stooping to Milo’s level but she gets away with it. Thus is exposed Twitter’s biases (for whatever reason), yet they refuse to acknowledge them.

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    • I’m with you there. However, Leslie Jones isn’t the Milo of the left. Maybe it’s a distinction without a difference but I don’t see liberals parading Jones’ commentary as representative of the liberal agenda; the right however loves the ‘what’ of what Milo is saying.

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      • Indeed, but the lack of even handedness by Twitter is blatantly obvious. They can do what ever they want, but their biases are showing. They should stop the claim of neutrality. I’m certain if I said what Leslie said I’d have been banned.

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        • Everyone from every organization claiming to be neutral is frankly exhausting at this point. I’m actually more likely to read something if they’re up front about their commitments (this usually takes a degree of self-awareness that few “thought leaders” have these days) i.e. not pretending that saying “fair and balanced” resonates with anyone who is even somewhat intelligent.

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          • I strongly disagree. One of the requirements of civil society is that people make an effort to be objective. It’s not hard to do – you’ll never get it 100% right, but you’ll do better the more you work at it.

            To my thinking, the “let’s just admit our biases” approach flies in the face of the civility I believe you’re arguing for.

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            • I’m not sure how it flies in the face of civility.

              Maybe I take issue with your use of objectivity. Politics and political conversations aren’t a science; everyone trying and believing they have stumbled upon objectivity is exactly what’s got us here in the first place. Until we realize that objectivity is not something we can attain in human affairs, we will continue down this road of yelling at the opposition and then sticking our fingers in our ears so we don’t have to listen to them.

              My point about the bias thing might only be a rhetorical issue: until Breitbart admits that they are merely an opposition to progressivism (and Huffpo an opposition to whatever Breitbart is) and not, as it were, the answer, we will continue down this dark, egotistical road.

              This is not politics; it’s pure immaturity. But as I said, I realize this is just a celebrity’s world. They know they’re not really talking politics. So why I give Milo the time of day in the form of criticism is beyond me!

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              • I’m guessing we agree on the following: the first step toward maturity is humility, the recognition that there’s stuff you don’t know. Celebrity is functionally the opposite, as it puts the value of fame above the value of knowledge.

                Where we disagree: I see the the pursuit of objectivity as necessary on the path toward maturity. To declare oneself as biased is to enshrine the principle that your goal is something other than the truth.

                Let me make the distinction between objectivity and neutrality. Objectivity means a commitment to follow the facts toward a conclusion (where possible). Neutrality is a lack of a conclusion. It’s an appropriate starting point where no facts are known, but when facts are known it represents a failure to follow them toward a conclusion.

                We all have biases. They prevent us from being completely objective. To wear our biases on our sleeve can be as bad as celebrity or neutrality, in that it reduces the number of conclusions a person is willing to draw. It embraces the bias, rather than seeking to overcome it.

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    • Damon:
      Yeah well, screw decency.There’s a lot nice decent folks out there, and I respond to that with the same.For the rest, who aren’t, they get back what they give.Curiously, it seems Leslie Jones isn’t above stooping to Milo’s level but she gets away with it.Thus is exposed Twitter’s biases (for whatever reason), yet they refuse to acknowledge them.

      Damon,

      I can’t say I know the first thing about Leslie Jones, but if she stoops as low as Milo did with his pathetic attempt to defend fat shaming, I’d be surprised.

      This is pretty low…and stupid.

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    • it seems Leslie Jones isn’t above stooping to Milo’s level

      Has she posted forged Tweets in order to drive a wave of harassment at a specific Twitter user?

      Otherwise, your complaint doesn’t appear to hold up to basic scrutiny.

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        • Yes, “racist comments”[1] and forged tweets are, in fact, entirely different things. Building a case for a double standard on the basis that Twitter treats different things differently is not convincing.

          [1] I’ll stipulate that Jones posted these, but won’t actually believe it until I see links to them on her timeline. No, screenshots don’t count–you can thank Milo and his scumbag buddies for that.

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          • First I don’t need to build a case for twitter double standards. It’s already established. In fact, I think it was discussed on this very site previously. Second, in terms of the TOS, both ARE violations. That’s all I’m talking about.

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            • It’s not clear to me that racist comments, in general, are banned by the Twitter TOS. The only reference is this:

              “Hateful conduct: You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories.”

              Just making bigoted general comments about members of a certain race (or other listed class) doesn’t seem to count.

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                • I’m not using that paragraph to justify Milo’s ban. I’m using his forgery of posts to justify his ban. However, nothing you’ve presented justifies banning Jones on those grounds. Just posting racist and homophobic stuff doesn’t do it, as that paragraph makes pretty clear.

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                  • I’m going to write real slow so maybe you can understand….

                    “encouraging her followers to harass others” and now the twitter policy….”You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories.”

                    What part of encouraging her follows to harass her detractors is within twitter’s guidelines you posted above?

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            • What I linked to shows that, despite arguments by the Milo-ites to the contrary, what Jones did is not even close to what he/they did.

              You may find what Jones said unfunny or offensive. But it is not a coordinated attack and pattern of targeted abuse aimed at someone because of their race. Apples and orange-colored rocks.

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              • I’m going to copy what I said below to you..

                ““They think that is of the same nature of what Milo and his grunts did to her.”

                No, but it’s clear that Twitter is being selective in using the banhammer when their TOS is violated. THAT’S the point I’m making. Both actions warrant action.”

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            • 1.) linked to fucking Breitbart, dude. They have less than zero credibility when it comes to accusing black women of being racist, and, you know, are Milo’s employers. If I had seen a link to Breitbart come up, I would have not clicked on it, because of the high probability of it leading to an egregious pack of lies.

              2.) Nonetheless, it did not appear on the first page when I googled “Leslie Jones” or “Leslie Jones racist”. I was not interested in spending a great deal of time validating your charges.

              3.) Unlike Breitbart, Kazzy does not have a history defaming black women with fabricated charges of racism, so I clicked the link. None of the tweets there seem to rise anywhere near a Twitter TOS violation (note again: just saying racist stuff doesn’t cut it), and thus completely fail to substantiate the charge of there being a double standard.

              My days of thinking that Breitbart is completely without credibility on this issue are definitely coming to a middle.

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              • Encouraging her followers to “get them”. Sorry, that’s promoting violence in my book. And threatening others because of their race, yah, she did that. You can disagree, but I don’t have an agenda here. Maybe you do?

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                • Sorry, that’s promoting violence in my book.

                  Twitter evidently disagrees, and would have pretty good basis for doing so, since she said she was going to “tell [her interlocutor] about herself” but that instead she would “let [her] followers do it”. She also made no mention of the target’s race, contrary to your claims.

                  It looks like a violation of Twitter’s rule against targeted harassment, but since it’s a single instance, and Milo was banned for (quoting the article quoiting Twitter) “repeated violations” of that injunction, there is still no double standard in evidence.

                  And threatening others because of their race, yah, she did that.

                  Not even in the linked Breitbart article.

                  You can disagree, but I don’t have an agenda here. Maybe you do?

                  I suppose “refuting frivolous arguments” is a kind of agenda.

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                • Encouraging her followers to “get them”. Sorry, that’s promoting violence in my book.

                  Unless you’re parodying SJW histrionics, this is pretty silly. It seems much more likely that she was just asking her sycophants to send abusive messages.

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                • Damon has a point that “encouraging her followers to ‘get them’ ” is exactly what people are saying that Milo (and RSM, for that matter) did.

                  However, that is not what Milo was banned for.

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  3. I have to say, upon reflection I feel slightly foolish that I even attempted to make sense of Milo. I’m essentially resigned to the fact that he is celebrity doing and saying whatever he thinks will get him more attention. Which in that case it looks like I fell right into his trap.

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  4. The thing to worry about when it comes to Milo is that he made being on the alt-right “cool”. It was punk rock.

    Something worth worrying about is whether this coolness transfers over to a new medium (e.g., the next big twitter that is more interested in growing its base than in maintaining decency).

    Twitter’s tendencies to shut down hashtags, for example, could easily result in a next big thing being a better place to learn about certain hashtags… and Milo gets to be one of the early adopters who will point out that “they shut me down the same way they shut down #HillaryKilledHarambe!” or whatever and stories about the hashtags that got shut down will end up making it look like wasn’t interested in protecting some notion of decency, but interested in pushing forward some ideological agenda.

    At which point it is really easy to imagine twitter then becoming digg/myspace.

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    • Good point; that cool factor is something I didn’t really think about.

      However, whatever medium happens to be next it doesn’t much matter. The word “medium” itself almost implies a separation between speaker and listener and vice versa. And that’s always going to be the biggest problem for me: Never really having to confront or understand the people you are shouting at…

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    • Has he really? Among whom?

      I think that Internet political types vastly over estimate our world. Most people don’t know who Milo is. Most people don’t know who the alt-right are.

      Maybe I am living in a very sheltered world of liberal secular types but I don’t see Milo making the alt-right cool or more attractive. No one has proven to me that the alt-right has entered non-Internet discourse.

      And Milo is allegedly Jewish and allegedly gay so his championship of the alt-right is plain weird.

      Where is the proof that the alt-right is now considered cool and large?

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      • I’m referring to his college tours. They appear to be sold out wherever he goes.

        I don’t know how else to measure “cool” when it comes to college campuses.

        As for saying that grownups who have grownup jobs and hang out in grownup circles have never heard of something “cool”… well. Okay.

        Where is the proof that the alt-right is now considered cool and large?

        Trump?

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        • Are college students fawning on him or going to jeer and protest? My take it is largely jeer which is not great because Milo thrives off that kind of energy but I don’t see a rise of attraction to fascism on campus.

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          • There are always jeerer and protesters, true. Milo leverages this. He has people who are his fans there, people who are his detractors, and people who are curious because of all of the brouhaha prior to the actual event.

            Then, during the event, Milo does a great job of pretending to be reasonable and civil and making the people who jeer and protest part of the show and this allows him to come off as the reasonable one who the campus left doesn’t want you to hear.

            I don’t see a rise of attraction to fascism on campus

            How about antiantifa attraction?

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      • I agree with the argument that “most people don’t know who Milo is,” but you have to also realize that those same people also don’t know who Tim Kaine is or know a single platform of Hillary’s. My point being that just because the vast majority of people don’t know who someone is doesn’t mean isn’t having an effect on those people who actually are involved in politics (my point being that ‘the most people don’t know him’ argument is true, but those people don’t know who anyone in politics is because they don’t care). I can’t imagine many people knew who Hume, Locke, or Montesquieu were at the time but here we are! This is not at all meant to insinuate that Milo is any of these… you get it.

        The fact of the matter is, people on the Right read Breitbart. And Milo is the coolest, newest thing to hit that site. Milo hasn’t been around long enough to connect the dots concretely, but it also doesn’t take a political science PhD to take a stab at the effect he might have.

        I agree though, no one really knows for sure what effect he will have. My guess is that the Right will see him as a “see we have a gun-loving gay on our side!” He already is this. I guess ultimately, neither side in this conversation need any more reason to be uncivil or flamboyant merely for the sake of being uncivil or flamboyant. This, to me, is the most dangerous aspect of him.

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      • Going back and looking at the stuff that was considered shocking in the 80’s just makes me smile and think “WHAT WERE WE THINKING?”

        The Beach Boys were seen as degenerate? THE BEACH BOYS???

        The PMRC had hearings and John Denver talked about when he was censored? JOHN DENVER???

        So now we’ve got Milo who is pretty shocking, I guess. As these things go.

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  5. The degree of disappointment when Twitter supposedly doesn’t live up to its stated standards of neutrality is actually kind of stunning to me. It’s obvious marketing guff, and being upset that it doesn’t describe the reality of the service seems a lot like being upset that drinking a Lite beer won’t actually draw the attention of attractive members of the appropriate sex.

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  6. >>Call me a traditionalist, but I don’t see why civility or common decency needed to go when we became a more expressive and open society.

    We can and should have a discussion about civility and decency, but Milo wasn’t banned for being uncivil. He was banned for fraud and incitement. A lot of these discussions start off on the wrong foot by assuming that Milo is just some transgressive dude with a lot of followers.

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  7. The irony of this situation hasn’t escaped me. We have a set of anti-corporate, or at least corporate-suspicious people, defending shutting down unpopular speech because a private corporation is doing it, not the federal government. On the con law merits, they’re right, but it seems like more of a convenient workaround than a principled stand.

    So now we have a situation in which a few corporations, by virtue of network effects, have control over large chunks of our interpersonal communication, and free reign to say what’s appropriate or not. And the left is OK with this because it’s easier to cause a PR problem quelled by acquiescence than actually getting the votes to add an asterisk to the first amendment saying “subject to limitations based on the speaker’s place in the hierarchies of oppression.”

    Today, it’s a repugnant twerp harassing a rising comedic actress who did nothing to deserve it. But tomorrow? Earlier this week, I read a discussion about a writer who goes by an uncommon invented pronoun. Many people, unfamiliar with the author’s work, used the pronouns that one would assume go along with the posted photo. More than one commenters said, on more than one occasion, that using the wrong pronoun, innocuously as anyone could tell, “would be experienced as violence.” I know better than to hang my slippery slope argument on two internet commenters, but it shouldn’t exactly been news that the word “violence” has become very plastic of late.

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  8. So if I think that when someone’s behaviour looks pretty clearly like it rises to the level of criminal stalking, that person should maybe be charged and prosecuted – does that make me a “radical”?

    Are Bill Clinton and the majority of Congress of 1996 “radicals” for passing that law?

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  9. The best quality of Twitter is that anyone can join any conversation at any time, by just invoking someone’s call-sign or hashtag. This is also the quality that ruins it.

    Because someone can find a popular, widely-followed conversation and inject their own message in it. Highly off-topic and inflammatory, because that drives attention. It’s like they get to put free ads on the most interesting art in the museum, and think it should be protected as “free speech”. But that’s not the worst aspect of it.

    The more malicious problem comes when someone who isn’t interested in the conversation and would rather shut it down can intrude him or herself into the conversation, and make participating in that conversation so unbearable that the participants leave. This has little to do with free speech. It’s actually the opposite. It’s hilarious that Milo should style himself a champion of free speech. The purpose of his assaults is to shut other people up and drive them away, and then victim blame them.

    I once heard a tale of some racing game that had an online component. The game also allowed users to design their own skins for their car bodies. Naturally, some group took over the online portion using cars skinned to look like penises. This served their purposes, since they were so obnoxious they drove other people away, leaving them in possession of a valuable resource.

    We’ve seen this tactic before.

    It is the above two behaviors that destroyed an online community that I cherished – the Golden Horde. I see no future for an unmoderated internet.

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    • “I see no future for an unmoderated Internet.”

      I’ve never been so contradicted in my life: I wholeheartedly agree, yet in no way do I want bureaucrats involved in the moderating process. I’d be curious (genuinely) about how to solve that conundrum.

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      • Smaller venues? Algorithmic support?

        I bet that if Twitter really put its mind to it, they could set up a system that automatically detected the kind of harassment that Jones was being subjected to and, say, suspend all the participants’ accounts for 24 hours or the like.

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            • The way I’ve seen the tone policing taboo used in practice is that it forbids anyone from criticizing any expression from a person below them on the intersectional continuum as being too aggressive, angry, threatening, hurtful, derogatory or (sometimes) violent. I can’t see how an algorithm would distinguish between all the subtle gradations.

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              • I’m assuming it would work by a sudden spike in Tweets with only minimal attention paid to content.

                In any event, both phenomena you’re describing are hideously dysfunctional, so it’s hard for me to see preventing them as bugs rather than features.

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                • I wonder if it’s possible to design a content-neutral platform that avoids this. Regular people reaching out to people who used to have layers of intermediaries is pretty cool. Good ideas signal-boosted by bigger fish is a great thing! But it also means that it’s just as easy to abuse.

                  So do we have an upvote/trust system? It can be mobbed easily – just look on Reddit.

                  Do we need seven layers of authentication and verification? Phone numbers? Try that in an oppressive country.

                  If the only answer is a human moderation system, susceptible as it is to pressure campaigns and management concerns, the threat of ideological manipulation (or things getting through the cracks) remains present. It’s lose-lose

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                  • Do you mean content-neutral or viewpoint-neutral? A policy where you get banned if you forge tweets or if X% of your followers send death-threats to another user seems viewpoint-neutral to me.

                    This distinction ended up being pretty important in the Free Stacy thread we had earlier, where much of the discussion about McCain assumed that he was just a transgressive conservative rabble-rouser rather than someone who had put up personal information about another user and then retweeted his followers encouraging her to commit suicide.

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        • I bet that if Twitter really put its mind to it, they could set up a system that automatically detected the kind of harassment that Jones was being subjected to and, say, suspend all the participants’ accounts for 24 hours or the like.

          I think this is tougher than you might imagine. Naively you’re looking for a spike in mentions with harassing content. But the data problem is that you probably have thousands of such spikes that are positive and make Twitter money (some new #brand starts to go viral); a few hundreds that are disparate harassment which cannot be controlled; and a handful that are actually coordinated harassment that costs Twitter money. Algorithms for extracting tone out of short messages are pretty poor, especially in an abbreviated medium like twitter which is overflowing with internal slang, inside jokes, sarcasm, and allows image-based content. In this specific case, an algorithm would have to be extremely sophisticated to (a) accurately classify a spike in mentions as containing racist jokes, (b) connect this back to a user that’s putting up forged images of tweets, (c) distinguish these mentions from the #brand valuable ones simply discussing the Lady Ghostbusters #movie that just game out (which are also spiking). A person with some expertise in on-line bullying could probably do this in a matter of minutes.

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      • What I think might work is to delegate moderation to users. Google Plus does this to some extent. Users can delete comments and ban people from commenting on their posts, or simply turn off comments.

        What would twitter be like if users could decide “I created this hashtag, and I hold a banhammer for it”. And for tweet-mentions, or whatever they are called.

        You can say what you like, but you don’t get to piss on my parade.

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  10. Milo also faked Tweets from Jones. I don’t know if Twitter said as much, but I believe this was a factor in their decision to ban. Impersonating someone is different than vile speech. While Popehat said it is unlikely to be legally actionable, the possibility of such may also have weighed in Twitter’s decision making. This wasn’t just punishing a potty mouth.

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    • As I said above, forged tweets the value of Twitter’s platform. If you see that someone well-known tweeted something and later learn it was a forgery, you start to mentally discount any tweet you see quoted. If forgery becomes widespread. people will stop quoting tweets entirely.

      Twitter has to take forgery seriously, just as professional sports have to take players’ gambling seriously. In baseball, that’s a permanent suspension, period, no matter who you are. Just ask Pete Rose.

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  11. Maybe Milo doesn’t tell us anything about free speech or decency. Not everything has to mean something.

    About the only thing that I can think of is this: if you have robust enough free speech protections, laws and norms, some asshole will invariably come along and make you question whether those protections are a good idea.

    I still say that those protections and norms are worth defending, because what you risk getting when you go the other way is worse than a Milo having the ability to say terrible things. You risk getting a Milo with the ability to stop everyone else from criticizing his terrible things.

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    • How do you square robust free speech norms with an expectation that companies which live and die by the messages that they broadcast[1] and the way that they allow communities to form in those spaces should be required to broadcast messages that they (and more importantly, their users) find grotesque and alienating? How much goodwill, user base and, yeah, money is Twitter supposed to lose in order to keep the likes of Milo around?

      [1] I think it’s pretty significant that Facebook and Twitter both have business models that are fundamentally rooted in their ability to control what you see when you use them; they’s nothing like “common carriers”.

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        • j r, you said I still say that those protections and norms are worth defending, because what you risk getting when you go the other way is worse than a Milo having the ability to say terrible things. Which sounds like you’re saying Twitter shoulda kept Milo around.

          This goes back to a (brief) discussion we had the other day about how journalistic standards blend with market forces. My argument was that market forces actually run counter to journalistic standards (since eyeballs = ad revenue /= journalistic standards), and pillsy’s argument seems to be similar. Twitter makes a calculation on profitability (or whatever) and decides that net-benefits accrue to the bottom line (or whatever) by banning Milo. Pure market-based decision-making.

          Your argument seems to be that Twitter should have valued speech rights above profitibility, which of course makes no sense from a market-based perspective (unless, acourse, Speech Rights Robustity is valued in the market). Speech rights (and journalistic standards, for that matter) are inherently distinct from, ancillary to and run counter to, market-based decisionmaking.

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          • Your argument seems to be that Twitter should have valued speech rights above profitibility…

            What did I say that has any resemblance to that? I don’t care what Twitter does to Milo, because I don’t care about Milo. Every second spent discussing him, is a second spent giving him exactly what he wants. And that’s why I said “Milo doesn’t tell us anything about free speech…”

            What I care about is when people use guys like Milo to justify incursions into existing speech and expression norms. I’m talking about things like legislation and campus speech codes not Twitter’s terms of service.

            And we didn’t have any discussion about market forces. I made a point about the quality of certain kinds of political media and you made a non sequitur, which is what you’re doing now.

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            • j r,

              Well, now we’re doing what intellectual white guys do: GET LEGALISTIC!!!

              I’m game. Earlier, I mocked you for mocking the decline of journalistic standards, and I gave a reason: that market forces don’t give a rat’s ass about ’em.

              In this thread, I quoted your upthread comment as evidence that pillsy’s claim (regarding your comment) is correct.

              Maybe you spoke loosely up there? I certainly didn’t read the comment I quoted as referring to “legislation and campus speech codes not Twitter’s terms of service.” You didn’t refer to any of those things in the initial comment.

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              • Well, now we’re doing what intellectual white guys do: GET LEGALISTIC!!!

                I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about. I did not “speak loosely.” I said exactly what I meant to say. I don’t care about Milo, don’t care enough to condemn him and definitely don’t care enough to defend. And I don’t care that Twitter banned him. Mostly, I’d prefer to ignore his existence.

                The one small way in which I care about Milo is that invariably someone will come along and use him and others like him to try to justify some terrible law. And I think when that happens, we ought to resist the urge to weaken our speech norms. If you disagree with any of that fine, but I don’t know what it is that’s gotten you to all caps and three exclamation marks. You seem a little unhinged.

                As for the other thing, if you want to tell yourself that you “mocked” me, have at it. Whatever makes you feel good about yourself. But here is a little analog that illustrates how that exchange went:

                Man 1: How was your night? You went out to dinner, right?
                Man 2: Yeah, I went to Chez Frenchie. Honestly, I think it’s gone down hill. They used to have some very authentic dishes, but now they mostly cater to the crowds with poor renditions of what Americans think French food is.
                Man 3: [entering the conversation] Don’t blame Chez Frenchie. They’re just responding to market forces. That’s capitalism, right?
                Man 2: Umm.. OK. I’m really just taking about how I don’t like the food.
                Man 3: Market forces!!!!
                Man 2: That’s great. I think I’m going to go now. [leaves]
                Man 3: [turning to man 1] Did you see how I just totally mocked that guy?

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        • That’s how I interpreted the segue into the second paragraph, and the discussion of free speech protections and norms.

          If you don’t think such really apply to Twitter (legal protections obviously don’t, but norms certainly could), then I don’t disagree with what you said.

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    • “I still say that those protections and norms are worth defending, because what you risk getting when you go the other way is worse than a Milo having the ability to say terrible things.”

      If I may weigh in, this implies that there is a serious argument being put forth that those protections and norms AREN’T worth defending and/or that folks want to “go the other way”.

      If those arguments aren’t being put forth — here or elsewhere — than commenting on them muddies the waters a bit and invites pushback such as what Stillwater offers here.

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      • If I may weigh in, this implies that there is a serious argument being put forth that those protections and norms AREN’T worth defending and/or that folks want to “go the other way”.

        I think that you’re using the term “imply” rather loosely. And, as a matter of fact, there are people who think that our existing speech and expression norms aren’t worth defending, which is why you always have people trying to pass new speech and expression restrictions or trying to sue somebody for saying something that they don’t like or trying to censor this, that and the next thing.

        And I didn’t invite anything, as my responses to the two people who tried to misread my comment before Stillwater might “imply,” I have no interest in defending Milo or arguing against what Twitter did.

        Most of the time that I reply to people’s comments, I use quotes. That way I know that I am replying to what they said and not to what I think that they might have seemed to be implying. And when I don’t know what someone is saying, I ask.

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        • This is getting silly.

          the two people who tried to misread my comment

          Here’s your comment, quoted again, as you would do:

          I still say that those protections and norms are worth defending, because what you risk getting when you go the other way is worse than a Milo having the ability to say terrible things.

          How is understanding that statement as an expression that Milo shouldn’t have been banned because banning people like Milo leads to an even worse outcome “trying to misread” your comment? It’s mystifying to me how you think those words express anything else.

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          • It’s mystifying to me how you think those words express anything else.

            That says much more about you that it does about me.

            And here is a crazy idea. If I thought that Milo shouldn’t have been banned, I might have just come out and said, “I don’t think Milo should have been banned.”

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        • I certainly don’t mean to tell you what you think, believe, said, or meant. Rather, I’m offering my own perspective on your comment. It seems now that three people (self included) misread or misunderstood it.

          Now, I’m off the belief that once someone clarifies a statement, we ought to work off the clarified statement. At the same time, if someone makes a comment that is misunderstood by many, they sort of have to own that.

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          • At the same time, if someone makes a comment that is misunderstood by many, they sort of have to own that.

            Come on Kazzy, that statement doesn’t hold water when you apply it to the internet, where people are looking to read people’s comments in the worst possible light if they perceive those comments to be on the other side of an issue.

            It’s a lot more likely that some people saw my comment and thought oh, he’s said things in the past about Twitter and internet SJW and which sound suspiciously sympathetic to people like Milo. He must be trying to defend Milo.

            If that’s how people want to read comments, have at it. Just don’t pretend that’s the right way to do things. Respond to what people say, not what you imagine that they might be saying.

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            • j r,

              What’s interesting in this thread is that you’re attributing nefarious motives to your interlocutors, every one of whom has said that perhaps you didn’t mean to express what you actually did. That is, we’re not reflexively “looking to read people’s comments in the worst possible light if they perceive those comments to be on the other side of an issue.” The opposite in fact.

              I think we all read the comment neutrally, and the evidence is that every one of us has given you the opportunity to clarify it. Instead, you’ve accounted for our views not by conceding that the quoted passage was poorly written or confusing, but rather that all three of us are looking to see the worst in you. Which is sorta ironic. We’re the ones who gave YOU the benefit of the doubt.

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              • What’s interesting in this thread is that you’re attributing nefarious motives…

                Gee, why would I do that?

                Well, now we’re doing what intellectual white guys do: GET LEGALISTIC!!!
                I’m game. Earlier, I mocked you for mocking the decline of journalistic standards

                As for the mocking thing, just because you don’t think you were mocked doesn’t mean I wasn’t mocking you. I was!

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                  • I guarantee you that there is nothing that you could say to me that could get me sore. I don’t know you, but I’d put even money on me having tougher skin than you. I’m not the one using the all caps and ranting about white guys and getting legalistic. Believe me when I tell you that I don’t even know what that means.

                    Once you made that comment on the other thread and I asked what it meant and realized that you were trollong, I immediately put it out of my mind. You’re the one bringing it to another thread and trying to rehash some argument that never was. If you think that you got one over on me, great. I’ll play along. All the more reason for you to quit while you’re ahead.

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                    • I guarantee you that there is nothing that you could say to me that could get me sore.

                      Then why apologize to pillsy and not me? My introduction into this thread was merely to defend his interpretation of your comment.

                      I don’t know you, but I’d put even money on me having tougher skin than you.

                      I’m happy for you if you think so. Good on ya. Tho having tough skin would not be an attribute in the world I’d prefer us all to live in.

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            • “Respond to what people say, not what you imagine that they might be saying.”

              If only it were that easy…

              I will speak only for myself and say that reading the section quoted, it gave me a different impression than it seems you intended. And I trust you know I have no particular axe to grind nor much interest in twisting people’s words. I weighed in only to say that maybe, in this instance, you weren’t as clear as you thought you were.

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        • And I didn’t invite anything, as my responses to the two people who tried to misread my comment before Stillwater might “imply,” I have no interest in defending Milo or arguing against what Twitter did.

          Emphasis mine.

          I misinterpreted your comment in the same way two other people did, and that means that I was arguing in bad faith by deliberately misreading it?

          Go piss up a rope.

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  12. I think it’s interesting that we’re just supposed to assume that Leslie Jones is somehow comparable to Milo based on raw assertion. Given the way false charges tend to propagate against victims of shitbird trolls (e.g., Kathy Sierra), I’m extremely skeptical of “common knowledge” of this sort.

    Using Jones’ alleged behavior without providing robust evidence that she actually engaged in it does not make me more favorably inclined towards arguments that this somehow demonstrates that Twitter has a double standard.

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